Finger-pointing First Over Brum Deal
TONY Mowbray was scathing about Boro's porous defence after a bruising defeat at Birmingham. Which was a first. Not the bruising defeat. The inconsistent team have been thumped before several times this season by on-songs teams with a cutting edge; teams like Southampton, West Ham, Blackpool, Reading and now Birmingham.
But significantly it was the first time this term a boss generally very protective of his team has been so pointed and public in his criticism of the players after a game.
And you can't blame him after the battering at Birmingham.
You can see his point. After a water-tight start to the season Boro had the best defensive record in the Championship until a month ago. In fact, they are still right up there up at the top of the clean sheets table.
But the ravages of a jittery January in which they were badly beaten three times dented the once impressive statistics and left stuttering Boro looking habitually fragile at the back left their play-off hopes in the balance.
We rationalised it at the time as being the effect of losing the impressive human shield of influential tackling machine Nicky Bailey for eight weeks.
But Bailey is back now and the defence is still shipping goals, still looking nervous when under pressure - especially late on - and still dropping clangers in the penalty area.
Against Leeds Boro were chaotic in defence as they were sliced open by quick passing moves on the break and failed to prevent unmarked runs into the box.
And at Birmingham it was carnage at the back too.
Some suicidal slack marking at St Andrews and a repeated failure to cut out a string of dangerous crosses - especially from livewire Chris Burke who had the freedom of Boro's left flank - gifted City an embarrassingly easy win.
They allowed Balkan beanpole Nikola Zigic - a Primark Peter Crouch - a free header for the first half opener then twice cheaply conceded possession and failed to deal with quick breaks as they leaked two killer goals in three minutes after the break.
Balls zipped in from both sides without being attacked, headers and tackles were missed, loose balls squirted about and weren't cleared, men wriggled free of their markers at will... it was chaos.
So you can understand why a frustrated Mowbray pointed the finger clearly at the brittle back line after the second city surrender.
"Our downfall was of our own making," he said bluntly. "It was self-inflicted. We lost because we made too many elementary mistakes.
"We didn't defend our box well enough. We allowed them to put too many crosses in and too much space in the box to attack them.
"We went down to a very basic free header in the box then just when we looked to be getting back into it we gifted them two goals. It's not rocket science. People have to do their jobs better. We have to cut out those mistakes.
"I have to give the defence credit for the vast majority of the season when they have done well but have to say that the last couple of games the goals we have conceded have been very poor."
Which is all well and good. No one would seriously argue that the disorganised defence played well or should be spared the sting of criticism.
But the problems started much higher up the pitch.
It was a collective failure and everyone should bear their share of the recriminations. Every department and the dug-out too. If the defence at Birmingham was a mess where do you start with the mis-shaped midfield? The failure to create chances by a blunt frontline? And the failed experimental 343 shape as a whole?
Neither the midfield nor the front three - which quickly became a front one - had featured together before in those permutations and it showed as they played like strangers.
The midfield widemen - full-back Joe Bennett and Justin Hoyte - were supposed to add width and pace going forward and to be fair at time they did trouble Birmingham and get behind the defence to put in decent crosses. One from Hoyte set up Boro's best chance which Lukas Jutkiewicz somehow steered wide when it was still just 1-0.
But when they pushed forward they left massive space behind them and when Birmingham quickly countered down those channels - especially the left - they had a free run as neither Julio Arca nor Kevin Thomson had the pace to cover the gaps. That allowed Birmingham free reign down the flanks to pepper the box with crosses.
That was the root cause of Boro's tactical problems.
Yes, it was compounded by individual mistakes. And not just at the back. In midfield there were plenty of missed tackles, stray balls, woeful decisions in distribution plus dithering over the ball and little sense of coherent strategy or belief.
Both second half strikes stemmed not from the defence but from hesitation on the ball in midfield as Adam Hammill allowed City men to steal it and spark quick counters. And there was plenty of that. Cheaply conceded possession and systematic failure to cut out simple balls through the middle. It was a mess.
A 343 is more often associated with the Dutch and total football But this was total chaos. It was an over-elaborate intellectual solution to a pressing problem. It was the kin dof thing my boy tries on Football Manager. As was the triple substitution.
But we have to accept it wasn't a shape plucked out of the air on a whim. It was an attempt to patch up some gaping holes in the first team and find a system to try to win the game. Maybe it was too adventurous, too clever? Maybe a more orthodox and more defensive set-up would have brought more reward.
But we also have to accept that the limitations of Boro's thin squad leave little wriggle room when a few key men are out. Without banned Barry Robson and injured Rhys Williams - out for the foreseeable - Boro are lightweight and limited in the engine-room lacking drive and quality going forward. But we knew that. It does not bode well for the next few crucial weeks of the campaign.
And there is an institutional lack of goals in the team. With Robson in the sin-bin, Scott McDonald on crutches and Marvin Emnes on the bench there is little fire-power. But we knew that too.
Of the starting line-up Matthew Bates was the top scorer with three. Fellow defenders Seb Hines and Tony McMahon have netted this season but none of the four in midfield or either side of the frontman have scored. Even Lukas Jutkiewicz, who has 11 for the season in the hotshots chart, has only scored once for Boro.
That is where the real problems lie. And that is the tactical circle that must be squared by the gaffer in the final straight.
Yes, we need to tighten up at the back and stop leaking sloppy goals. That is a given. But without finding a way that can provide some teeth and some goals by hook or by crook it will be a very frustrating finale.
It would be devastating if a season that promised so much splutters and fizzles out now.